FeminismScience

Lady Astronomers Can’t Get a Break

We talk a lot about the kinds of sexist issues that women have to deal with, especially in the sciences. I’ve seen over the last few years some pretty, eh, awful treatment of women in my field. Even more so, we deal with unintentional sexism, but that’s a story for another post. But look, this isn’t new. Apparently lady astronomers have been getting crap for years.

I came across this little gem of an image while merrily scrolling through Pinterest one day. It says at the bottom, “The Female Philosopher Smelling out the Comet” and has Caroline Herschel smelling through a telescope saying “What a strong sulpherous scent proseeds from this meteor.” Where the object in question contains a little cherub farting out a tail with the word “Catch.”

LOLWUT?

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This cartoon is clearly some kind of satire cartoon from the time when astronomer Caroline Herschel was one of the most prolific comet discoverers and only working female scientists, or “natural philosophers” as they were called in her day. Though she began working in astronomy to help her brother, William, she continued to make important contributions throughout her life and after her brothers death. But apparently, even in 1790, a lady couldn’t contribute to science without catching some kind of shit.

I tried to find out what has been written about this particular cartoon, labelled “social satire” by the British MuseumOlson and Pasachoff note that this appears during the “comet-crazed century” where comet chasers had a certain amount of popularity. Hughes calls this particular cartoon “exciting” since few representations of her exist from that time. Though it doesn’t explicitly name her, he notes that there really weren’t any other lady comet chasers of the time.

I, on the other hand, don’t necessarily find it exciting but a bit dismaying to see such a cool woman depicted as, well, kind of a ditz, at least to my modern interpretation. Though she is by far not the only scientist to be portrayed rudely in any time, it has a special bit of oomph for me seeing a woman astronomer shown that way.

It doesn’t help that I noticed this shortly after the Cosmos episode featuring William Herschel and his son, John Herschel. Now, don’t get me wrong, I think Cosmos is pretty cool and I LOVE having good science programming on network television. However, a few of us were dismayed that Caroline Herschel was left completely out of the story.

Caroline Herschel was an interesting figure, even if little is known about her life. She was devoted to her famous brother and nephew and did seem to enjoy the astronomical toils of her work, even if the work was simply drudgery to begin with. Though her education was extremely limited, she was a hard worker and didn’t seem to tolerate vapidity from her lady peers. I hope she’d get a little more recognition for what we do know, and that plucky historians may even be able to uncover more about her.

Though I think it’s safe to say that she didn’t actually invent the Smell-o-scope.

smelloscope

Nicole

Nicole

Nicole is an assistant professor of physics and astronomy at a small liberal arts college. Her home on the internet can be found at One Astronomer's Noise.

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4 Comments

  1. May 13, 2014 at 7:37 pm —

    In the article, it clearly states that it’s exciting because of the rarity of the depiction, with no moral attachment. Depictions are rare enough in this instances that I believe it qualifies as legitimately “exciting,” no matter how unfortunate it is.
    It is unfortunate that the article doesn’t really expound upon how this IS a rather disgusting way to characterize a heroic female scientist, though. I also wish Cosmos had mentioned her – their oversight seems to be to be rather astounding.

    • May 13, 2014 at 11:56 pm —

      I agree that its rarity makes it exciting in one sense… but it still elicited a facepalm along with a chuckle when I read it. I know the excited authors mean no harm :-)

  2. May 14, 2014 at 1:37 am —

    I find 18th-19th century English cartoons are almost always baffling. This is a fine example. Other than that it is not being kind to Caroline Herschel, the point completely eludes me. Is it that flatulence is so funny that you can make a joke by inserting it into any topic, no matter how irrelevant? Is CH supposed to be stupid for trying to smell through a telescope? (But she is succeeding!) Was there some reason to insult a particular comet, or comets in general? Is it that female philosophers are so contemptible that even heavenly bodies are rude to them?

    • May 14, 2014 at 11:29 am —

      It is important to note that a) a meteor is not a comet and b) her brother discovered Neptune, not Uranus Urectum.

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